Comparing home sales in the Tri-Cities this year to 2010 sales makes it look like the housing market might be slumping.
But that's because last year's housing market was "an anomaly," said Paul Roy, president of the Tri-City Association of Realtors.
Fewer houses were sold in the Tri-Cities in the first three months of 2011 compared with 2010, when federal incentives for first-time homebuyers stimulated housing sales in the first four months of the year.
Sales for the first quarter of 2011 also were slower than in the last quarter of 2010, according to a new study.
In Benton County, there was a dip of more than 7 percent between the homes sold from January through March compared with the last three months of 2010, according to the report from the Washington Center for Real Estate Research at Washington State University.
And in Franklin County, the center reported the decrease was almost 9 percent.
That contrasts with a statewide increase of 6.5 percent more homes sold in the first quarter of 2011 compared with the last quarter of 2010.
Compared with the first quarter of 2010, home sales in the first quarter of 2011 were down about 17 percent in both counties, according to the center's report.
But the Tri-Cities fared better than the rest of the state in retaining the value of housing, with prices slipping by less than 1 percent. Statewide, home prices dipped by about 7 percent compared with a year ago, according to the research center's report.
Roy, managing broker at Coldwell Banker Tomlinson Associated Brokers in Kennewick, said the drop in 2011 sales isn't a surprise because 2010 was a record year in the Tri-Cities as people took advantage of the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers offered from January through April.
Dave Retter, Windermere Real Estate/Tri-Cities owner and broker, said the tax credit artificially inflated first quarter sales in 2010. Comparing 2011 sales with 2008 and 2009 offers a more accurate picture, he added.
In the Tri-Cities and West Richland, there were 691 contracts to buy homes signed during the first quarter of 2011, Retter said. That's well above the 669 contracts in the first quarter of 2009 and the 616 contracts in the first quarter of 2008.
In 2010, some 997 contracts were signed during the same period, he said.
Retter said he found the tax credit convinced people who already planned to buy homes to buy them sooner.
The federal program offered a bonus to buyers.
What currently is slowing home sales in the Tri-Cities is a lack of homes with prices that appeal to first-time buyers, especially homes with a price tag below $200,000, Roy said.
And about 40 percent of potential customers are first-time homebuyers, he added.
"There is just not a lot to choose from," he said.
Roy said he was not seeing many first-time home owners selling their current homes and moving up to a larger home. That has a domino effect, because it means inexpensive homes aren't going onto the market to attract new first-time buyers.
Builders also don't seem to be keeping up with the needs of first-time homebuyers, Roy said, partly because it's tough to get construction loans right now.
By the time 2011 ends, Roy said he is anticipating an overall home sales growth of 10 percent.
He said his firm saw a 100 percent growth in the number of homes sold in the first week of May compared with the same week last year during the first week when the federal tax credit ended.
Retter doesn't expect to see a record year in 2011, but said that's not bad. It's healthier for the economy to have a stable market like the Tri-Cities has for the last 15 years, rather than spikes, he explained.